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Sam Taylor-Johnson
‘I feel like every time I do something I go to back to ground zero’: Sam Taylor-Johnson. Photograph: Henny Garfunkel/New York Times/eyevine
‘I feel like every time I do something I go to back to ground zero’: Sam Taylor-Johnson. Photograph: Henny Garfunkel/New York Times/eyevine

Sam Taylor-Johnson: ‘I’ve lost people very dear to me through addiction’

This article is more than 4 years old

The film-maker on adapting James Frey’s controversial rehab memoir A Million Little Pieces, whether she’s still making art and the joy of chickens

Since leaving the art world to become a film-maker, Sam Taylor-Johnson has shown impressive range. Her debut feature film, Nowhere Boy (2009), was a tender depiction of John Lennon’s childhood. She followed it with the less tender Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015. Now she’s back with A Million Little Pieces, an adaptation of James Frey’s scandalous semi-memoir about his rehab after years as an alcoholic and drug addict. Taylor-Johnson co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who also stars in the film. They live, most of the time, in Los Angeles.

You read A Million Little Pieces when it came out in 2003. It obviously stayed with you?
Yeah, it did. I remember reading it and being really overtaken by it; I think is the right word. I was in the world with him and on the journey. Then when it got optioned by whatever studio it was and it was going to be made into a big movie and there was this director and that director, I’d always have a tinge of jealousy. Even though I wasn’t a film-maker then, I’d be like: “What an amazing piece of material to have.” So I tracked it for a long time and I’d always keep my ear to the ground.

When you adapted Fifty Shades of Grey, you had a lot of clashes with its author, EL James. Did you go in more cautiously this time?
When I heard the rights had come back round to James [Frey], I got an email address and I emailed him. He called me within 20 minutes and said: “You want to make the movie of my book? I don’t want anything. I know you’re an artist, I wrote it as art, go make it as art. And be free!” So it was a dream. And obviously that wasn’t necessarily my experience before.

Frey was taken down by Oprah Winfrey in 2006 after sections of the book were shown to be made up. Is the controversy that surrounded the book an irrelevance now?
I don’t think it’s irrelevant. It’s obviously something that’s part of its history and that history has been chequered, but it wasn’t anything that we were going to deal with. We did talk about whether we should address it within the movie, whether we should, I don’t know, finish it with the [Oprah] interview or something. But I just wanted to make a film purely of the book, what that meant to me.

You’ve said before that you had times yourself when you were drinking too much. Did the book resonate personally?
It resonated with me on a personal perspective having lost people very dear to me through troubles with addiction. So it was more on that level. And the pain of the loss of friends never diminishes really. For me, back in my art-school, art-world days, it [drinking] was par for the course. But not addiction; addiction really is a very powerful disease that people struggle with.

Aaron gives a wild, kinetic performance as “James”. Were you at all surprised by how far he went?
Obviously, living with him, I’ve seen him go through lots of different characters. And every character he creates, if you like, it’s a two-month process where he gently slides and descends into the space in which that character lives. So I’ve got to admit, when we first started talking about doing this, I wasn’t relishing the prospect of living with him. After living with the Nocturnal Animals creature [in which he played a serial killer], that was tough. So I was prepared for it, because I’d seen what his devotion to a role is.

Fifty Shades of Grey made more than half-a-billion dollars worldwide. Did you expect more doors to open to you after that?
Yeah, it is kind of crazy. I feel like every time I do something I go to back to ground zero. I have to do the meetings, I have to bang on the doors and I have to remind people that I’m ready to work and capable. Does it surprise me? Not any more; I’m a little more savvy to it and I understand how it all works. People feel like it’s getting better, the needle is moving, and a lot of people are trying to be seen to hire more female directors, so that does help. But it’s still got a long way to go.

A Million Little Pieces was shot in just 20 days on a very tight budget. Was that an eye-opener for some of the cast? Or for you?
Well, when Billy Bob Thornton arrived on the first day he said, “Oh God, this is the first time I’ve had to share a trailer in about 25 years.” But he was still completely game on. And personally I’d say it was probably the most creative freedom I’ve had as a film-maker, and it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. But I would like more time next time.

Do you miss the art world?
I’m still very close to a lot of my artist friends and I have a studio and I haven’t stopped making work. I just haven’t been showing it.

Why not?
It’s that thing: having exited it so abruptly, you become a lot more tentative about stepping back into it. And now it’s gotten to a point where whenever my next show is, it’s a comeback! So I’ve got to make sure it’s a good one.

What are the best things about living in LA?
We live on a nature reserve, so I can get up in the morning – we’ve got three dogs – and I can go walking at 6am for two hours and not see anyone. I love living in LA because it’s a city that’s right in nature and it’s wild, which you don’t really imagine.

What are some recent cultural picks?
I just saw Hamilton for the second time in London. And I’m reading Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, which is really amazing. Music, most of it I hear through my kids. The two little ones are Hamilton-obsessed, the 12-year-old loves Led Zeppelin, and the older one listens to Blood Orange, so it’s across the board.

You also keep chickens. Would you recommend them as pets?
I grew up with chickens and it’s funny the things you scorn as a teenager and then find you do as an adult. I remember not liking having them and then here I am, I’ve got six chickens. Six chickens, three dogs, four kids… yeah it’s a lot to juggle.

A Million Little Pieces is out on 30 August

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